Showing a typical lack of depth regarding the trend right before their eyes, the media are mistaking what the newest Comscore numbers about social networks mean:
TABLE 1 Selected Social Networking Properties by Unique Visitors
Total U.S. - Home, Work and University Internet Users Source: comScore Media Metrix
Property………………………….. May-06 (000)
Total Internet Population……… 172,120
Classmates.com Sites…………. 14,792
MSN Spaces……………………… 9,566
Yahoo! 360 degrees…………… 4,936
This is just tip of the iceburg of Web culture. People are turning the Web into Ted Oldenburg’s Third Place, or maybe Third Space is better. The place that is not our home or our work, but where we interact in a larger, and more diverse social milieu. Where we are more likely to hear a dirty joke, or experience insights into others’ lives. Where we are more likely to find a source for artistic expression, new ideas, and ultimately, a broader and more open perspective on what makes the world spin around.
This is an implicit rejection of the controlled media depiction of purpose and meaning in our lives, a turning away from centralized organizations telling us what is important or how to live our lives. These social sites are not merely some way for venture capitalists to make money, or for faddish cliques to indulge in marginal lifestyles. This is the start of a new global culture, defining its own principles and mores, hiding in plain sight.
Sure, the news services and talking heads are quick to focus on the emergence of global Web culture when China jails some journalist or dissident who has resorted to the Web as a podium, but when it’s Westerners who are flocking to the pleasures of online society, it is spun as entertainment, leisure time activities, or the gross immorality of the lunatic fringe.
I am actually happy that the rise of Web culture can continue to be a surreptitious revolution, happening out in plain sight, because otherwise there would be hearings in Congress, and a hue-and-cry in the press. There is already a smattering of cautionary stories, like in today’s New York Times, warning members of the social networking sites that posting licentious or blatantly sexual materials on your MySpace could lead to “losing that dream job,” because after all, we are supposed to be soulless drones if we want to work for the man:
[ from Online Party Crashers]
All good things must come to an end, including the chance to post lascivious photographs and diary entries on the Internet without repercussions. A generation that has come of age with blogging, Webcams and social networking sites is waking up to the fact that would-be employers are looking over their shoulders — and adjusting their job offers.
So the subtle repressive powers of conservatism inherent in corporate life are being quietly heralded by the inherently conservative media — even a hypothetically left-leaning pub like the NY Times — where it is taken as a given that individuals should jettison any hope for a private life if they wish to work for corporate America. Give up open self-expression, conceal any sexual tendencies that stray from normalcy, and do not be too strident in your protests against idiocy in government, business, or religion. The message is clear: if you want the benefits of a working career, put aside any personal expression.
And the message that is being sent at a deeper level — one that the senders may not even know they are sending — is that they reject the openness, freedom, and self-expression that Web culture is founded on. And, once they realize what is going on, they will try to counter this quiet, bottom-up, and diffused revolution. The repressive regimes use direct controls to silence or jail those who attempt to undo centralized control of media and the state. But the societal controls within theoretically more open societies in the West will come to bear, and it is the gentle coercions — like the mocking, “father-knows-best” tone of the NY Times editorial — that may be the most difficult to blunt.
We have institutionalized the messages of the media, we are the ones who accept the powers that the corporations and media use to hold us in line. Why can’t I protest the war in Iraq on my blog if I work for some multinational? Do I have no forum for political advocacy? Should I be fired if my opinions upset my boss, or some client? If I am living a sexual lifestyle via some social networking site — one that is legal, but unsavory to the conservatives — should we accept the fact that I might be denied a job that I am capable of performing? Should we chuckle along with the editors of the Times, who imply that “of course such indiscretions will nix your career.”
And the last line will be the patronizing, and smarmy tone that they adopt. After all, serious and well-adjusted people don’t spend time on the Internet, except to gather information necessary to do their jobs. It is only the maladjusted fringe or immature that spend time in chat rooms, on MySpace, or blogging away.
I suggest that we need to explicitly expose them when they say these things, and argue the not-so-obvious at every turn:
- Web culture is happening: a spontaneous global culture is emerging, and it is based on openness, inclusion, acceptance of diversity, and the desire to make the world a better place to live.
- This movement is driven both by the failure of traditional organizations — media, government, and religious — to cope with the modern world, and the stresses we, as individuals, are confronted with.
- Web culture is a return to earlier elements of human social life, especially the importance of social relationships and the central importance of self-expression through art, principles that have been devalued for the past few hundred years. This is almost a reversion to tribal norms, although the tribe may be a diffuse network of woodworkers that you submerge into everyday via Yahoo Groups.
- Web culture is living at the edge, where people are interacting with others directly, and organizations form organically, as groups seek to legitimize order that has emerged within the group, not impose order on supposed chaos.
So, the Comscore figures hide as much as they reveal, and the smartalecky attitude of the NY Times editorial says less than it means. The revolution is coming and it will be socialized, and the powers whose authority and control are threatened will try very hard indeed to subvert any movements, especially global ones, that reject the current state of affairs.
I know you think that your 20 plus hours a week on the Internet is merely a sideline to a busy life, the curious stretching of your mind to understand the world from a slightly broader perspective. You may have no desire to be a part of some radical restructuring of human society. Or, at least no conscious desire to do so.
But, at least for people like me, the vanguard who live most of their business and personal life online (or at least mediated largely online), we have really already turned that corner. We have seen what’s over the horizon, and we know it’s worth fighting for. And we know who we are fighting against, too.
[Pointer Steve Rubel]